Saturday Night At The Movies: Is the whole purpose of the show to make movie stars?

Last year, we ran a series here on HitFix for the summer months, during the time when “Saturday Night Live” was off the air and on hiatus, and the response was strong enough that we decided to bring it back this summer.

I like looking backwards at the show’s history and its influence on big-screen comedy, and I’m equally interested in the ongoing story being written as new cast members test their box-office worth.  But it occurred to me, amidst the sighs of relief that “Bridesmaids” found its footing with audiences, that it no longer seems like it’s enough to simply be a great cast member on the show.  Until you’ve proven that you are also a movie star, it seems like funny doesn’t matter.

So let me ask you:  is becoming a movie star the sole reason that “Saturday Night Live” still exists?  Or is there merit in simply being a strong performer who fits well into the show?  Seems like a topic we should discuss since this entire column is about the relationship Hollywood has had with the show since the day it began.

When the show first went on the air, I’m sure the last thing Lorne Michaels was worried about was turning his show into a movie-star factory, but it’s been a genuine issue from the end of that season forward, thanks to Chevy Chase.  I wonder if Chevy would have stayed if he knew how long the show was going to run and just what sort of cultural space it would eventually occupy.  He was the first person that Hollywood lured away from the show with promises of stardom, and he certainly made it look easy at first.  And many of the members of that original cast made the jump back and forth, shooting movies during their time off, working hard.  Some of the films were directly related to the work they did on the show, and some of them were original scripts that they just hired the cast for, but in both cases, the SNL connection was important for Hollywood.

A few mornings ago, I picked up “Beverly Hills Cop” on Blu-ray, and for the first time in about 15 years, I watched the film.  It’s funny how clear my memories are of seeing that one theatrically, and of the hysteria around Eddie Murphy as a movie star in those early days.  By the time Eddie made the jump, the show had gone through a fallow period, and it seemed like Hollywood wasn’t really poaching from the show they way they did at first.  After all, who were they going to steal from the Jean Doumanian years?  Denny Dillon?  Charles Rocket?  They both got some work, sure, but they weren’t movie stars.  Not by any stretch of the definition.

Murphy, though, blew up immediately.  His first two films, “48 HRS” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” were absolutely perfect examples of what he could do on film, and it was electrifying to see them with sold-out audiences.  For those of us who were watching Murphy on “SNL,” there was nothing surprising about the way he made the jump.  He had a charisma that seemed too big for the small screen, and from the moment audiences feel for him, he dominated “SNL” in a way that unbalanced the show.

So is that a good thing or a bad thing?  I tend to think of Phil Hartman as one of the greatest “SNL” cast members of all time because he was like a glue for the show, able to do good work in big roles or small roles, constantly serving the best needs of each sketch instead of making himself more important.  Phil had a strong career as a character actor in films and on other TV shows precisely because of his ability to add to any project without becoming the center of gravity.  At its best, “SNL” is an ensemble show, and the stronger that ensemble is, the better a given season will be.  I’m not a fan of the years where one or two strong performers are the only ones who seem to work, and the cast members I like the most are the ones who blend in selflessly.

I was thrilled to see “Bridesmaids” do as well as it has, but now I wonder if Hollywood is going to expect Kristen Wiig to be “the star” every time out.  That would be a shame, and a real mistake, I think.  She was so memorable in “Knocked Up” with only a few minutes worth of screen time because of the character and the attitude, and she didn’t need to be in any more of the movie than she was.  Similarly, she and Bill Hader are outstanding in “Adventureland” as the married couple who run the amusement park, and there’s so much character packed into their short time onscreen because that’s what these performers are trained to do.  When you do sketch work, you need to be able to suggest volumes about your characters with a few lines or your body language.  Even in this year’s “Paul,” she walked away with the film because of the choices she made, the unconventional way she played a well-conceived character.  She took something funny on the page and made it real and grounded and complex.

I’m curious to see what’s going to happen with this era of “SNL” cast members in film in general.  One way to handle the whole “movie star” thing is just to opt out and pick roles that have nothing to do with conventional notions of stardom.  While Maya Rudolph is a major part of “Bridesmaids,” I get the feeling she’s not chasing stardom at all.  A movie like “Away We Go” isn’t one you make if you’re planning on grossing $500 million domestic.  With Bill Hader or Will Forte or Jason Sudeikis, the jury’s still out if they’re going to be the sort of people who can get a film funded just by being attached to it.  All three of them are genuinely funny and talented, but I’m not sure they’re the sort of performers who will motivate audiences to turn up to the theater just because they’re in a film.  Will Forte’s “MacGruber” is very funny, and it’s building a cult following, but it was a total bust in theaters.  One could argue that it wasn’t Forte’s fault, but rather a fatigue with the notion of “SNL” sketches turned into feature films.  Certainly, there have been enough terrible films that began life on the show over the years that no one would blame an audience for being cautious.  It’s hard to remember a time before Will Ferrell had blown up, but at one point, his hopes and dreams were all pinned on “A Night At The Roxbury.”  Scary, right?

The truth is that the goals of movie stardom and being a great “SNL” cast member are directly at odds with one another, and it takes a great deal of skill and luck to be able to manage both as well as possible.  That’s true behind the camera as well.  For every guy like Ferrell or Murphy or Belushi, you’ve got a fistful of guys like Darrell Hammond, Chris Parnell, or Harry Shearer.  The show has created enough movie stars over the years that it’s become this sort of benchmark of success that simply isn’t in the cards for most people, and it creates unrealistic standards.  If a comic performer is lucky enough to get hired for “SNL,” the goal should always be to become a great and valuable cast member.  You can’t control anything else out there, and even someone as wickedly funny as Tina Fey, so good on “30 Rock” and so smart as a writer, seems to be struggling to carve out a place in starring roles, making films like “Baby Mama” and “Date Night” that are far less interesting than she is.  All you can really control is the work you do on “SNL,” and a guy like Andy Samberg might never make the jump to being able to hold an audience’s interest and empathy for two full hours, but he has mastered the art of making them cry laughing for four minutes at a time.  One skill set does not automatically suggest mastery of the other, and it shouldn’t matter.  I still wonder what would have happened if Hollywood had given Chris Farley a few more years to grow up before they started working him like crazy, and I like to think he would have survived longer, happier and healthier, and I would trade a dozen “Tommy Boy”s if it meant Farley was still alive and kicking.

I’m sure Hollywood will keep trying, though, and their efforts guarantee we’ll never run out of things to write about in this column.  We’ll be bringing you a new one of these every week all summer long, so I hope you’ll join us.

And if you missed last year’s columns, check them out here:

“‘MacGruber,’ ‘Wayne’s World,’ and the legacy of ‘Shrek'”

“‘Caddyshack’ hits Blu-ray… so it’s got that going for it”

“Riggle, O’Hara, Wilson, and the art of the supporting player”

“‘Despicable Me,’ ‘Megamind,’ ‘Shame Of The Jungle,’ and more”

“He’s Chevy Chase, and you’re not”

“Phil Hartman, Cheech & Chong, and Pee Wee Herman

“What the heck was ‘The Saturday Night Live Movie’?”

“Belushi, the Bully Boys, and Wired 2.0”

“Why ‘Noble Rot’ Died On The Vine”

“Saturday Night At The Movies” runs here every Saturday night.  Appropriately enough.